With free agency rapidly approaching, John Lynch and the San Francisco 49ers will soon turn their attention to their reported desire to add a veteran backup quarterback behind expected 2023 starter Trey Lance. But which free agent option makes the most sense for the NFC Championship game participant? Well, according to Chris Polo of All 49ers FN, if Kyle Shanahan wants to target one of the highest-upside arms on the open market, Sam Darnold should be one of the 49ers’ top options.
“The former first-round pick from USC would be one of the most talented backups the 49ers could pursue in free agency,” Polo wrote. “Sam Darnold started six games last season for the Carolina Panthers. While he could have looked better, Carolina isn’t a team with stability. They fired their head coach early in the season, traded their best player to San Francisco, and went into a complete rebuild.”
“Darnold has shown flashes of his arm talent in the NFL and has made some difficult throws during his time in the league. While he is not a starting quarterback, the 49ers wouldn’t need him to be. Ideally, he would only be required as an insurance policy until Brock Purdy could suit up for games.”
“To have a backup with arm talent like Darnold and some youth as a 25-year-old while still having a handful of years in the NFL under his belt could be a good bargain for the right price. He has had his fair share of head-scratching plays in his career, but head-scratching mistakes from a quarterback on a small salary in a backup role are easier to accept than on an $18 million salary.”
Now, as some fans may recall, this isn’t the first time the 49ers have been linked to Darnold during an offseason, as once upon a time, the team reportedly tried to trade for his services.
The San Francisco 49ers Once Offered a First for Sam Darnold
Back in 2021, the Niners really wanted to add another quarterback to their roster and were trying to evaluate all sorts of different options in that pursuit. Though many recall Shanahan calling Matt LaFleur about Aaron Rodgers, and the team ultimately traded up to select Trey Lance third overall, many may have forgotten that, according to Cecil Lammey of DenverSports.com, Lynch also reportedly offered a first-round pick to the New York Jets for Darnold’s services.
“Ah, what might have been,” Lammey wrote. “League sources tell me Jets turned down 49ers’ first-round pick for Sam Darnold earlier this offseason. Joe Douglas & co. had concerns about Zach Wilson’s shoulder & wanted to see his pro day. Now, super confident & will likely be no2 pick.”
Despite failing to provide any more information on the proposed trade, like if the 49ers would have traded pick 12 in the 2021 NFL Draft or if they still would have had to move up to get a better selection, if San Francisco thought that highly of the USC product back in 2021, they might still have a tempered level of interest in 2023 on a much more cost-effective deal.
Sam Darnold Landed on ESPN’s 2023 Top-50 Free Agents List
Heading to free agency for the first time in his NFL career, Darnold landed a spot on ESPN’s “2023 NFL free agency: Ranking top 50 available players” list by Matt Bowen, coming in at the 49th spot sandwiched between Jadeveon Clowney and Germaine Pratt.
Darnold could be targeted as a low-tier starter or as a high-end No. 2 on the market. In six starts this season, he completed 58.6% of his passes for 1,143 yards with seven touchdowns and three picks. He’s a good mover with arm talent and second-reaction ability. Yes, we still see Darnold’s limitations late in the down, where his decision-making can slip, but he’s still young. He could be an intriguing player for an offensive coordinator who wants to work with him.
While he only appeared in six games for the Panthers in 2022, Darnold didn’t have terrible stats in his second season with Carolina in 2022, completing 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,143 yards, seven touchdowns, and three interceptions. Had Darnold not suffered an ankle injury in the preseason, he very well may have taken Baker Mayfield to the wire in a competition to become the team’s starting quarterback, but instead, he was placed on IR and didn’t make a start until Week 12. Suddenly an attractive backup option with starting experience, Darnold could finally prove that he can consistently play at a high level in a top-tier offense, as opposed to struggling as a starter for a non-playoff team.